In East Oakland, a couple offers 24-hour, two-parent day care
on March 2, 2015
On a Thursday morning just before lunch, 40-year-old Eugene Hamilton is looking at one of the two-year-old boys in his daycare. “You’re going to behave properly and not like a baby if you want to get back in there,” he says. The young boy wears a clean and snazzy orange flannel shirt, but is delivering a cross between a whine and a cry, the specialty of the walking, but not yet articulate, toddler. Eugene, dressed in crisp Nike casual sportswear, lays plates out for lunch. “Those tears better vanish, fast.” The kid has been, for one reason or another, banished from the playroom where eight other kids are engaged in a call-and-answer game with Eugene’s 45-year-old wife, Keishna.
The Hamiltons run a daycare in East Oakland. Like many daycares, they have a playroom, a TV, a kitchen with miniature tables and chairs, colorful posters on the walls and crates full of various toys and games. Unlike most daycares, Keishna’s Kiddie’s Corner takes care of kids 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The rise of 24-hour daycares in the past few years has followed naturally from the proliferation of non-conventional job hours, as well as zero-hour contracts and last-minute shift scheduling.
Eugene is doing what has made Keishna’s Kiddie’s Corner so valuable to many of the parents who use the daycare: offering highly-disciplined parenting services. Eugene and Keishna take the phrase in loco parentis literally. They firmly believe in the need for both the emotional nurture, on the one hand, and the strict enforcement of behavior in caring for kids on the other. Or, as they put it, “both Mommy and Daddy services.” Keishna tells many stories of Eugene’s ability to turn wailing tantrums into tranquil silence, in both respect and fear, stories to which Eugene reacts with knowing smiles.
The couple has two daughters of their own, plus Eugene has a son from a previous relationship, and Keishna two sons similarly. Before they opened their own, they had been looking for a daycare they could trust for their own kids, and found one that would become their future blueprint, with a mother and father running the place. “I didn’t realize quite how many single-parent homes there are, which is why this set-up works so well,” says Keishna.
“Many of them just do not have a father figure in their life,” says Eugene. “So many boys are not taught how to be a man in the world, and develop into a mature person at that.” Eugene is not a patriarchal, iron-fist ruling dean of daycare, however. A little while after dealing with the toddler’s meltdown, he is singing “Old MacDonald” back to the kids, making all the hand movements and the familiar noises of farmyard animals, captivating the room.
One parent drops her small girl off every day at a different hour. “My 9-to-5 shift could be in the daytime or at night,” she says. “And I don’t find out until the day before. Very few daycares let me drop in and out whenever I want.”
This takes its toll on Keishna. “My phone goes off at all hours,” Keishna says. They have one full-time helper and two part-time staff working at the daycare. But the hours are worth it to her. “A while ago I had a mother come in here crying because she was so happy she found us, and she could keep her job,” she says. “Without places like this, she would be in a job-hunt and a care-hunt.”
A huge number of service worker parents—police officers, doctors and nurses, firefighters—are on-call overnight, and don’t know when they’ll be dragged away from their kids. “When the [police brutality] protests happened at the end of last year, I had a riot police mom who had to come here at 2 am to drop their kid off on their way to an emergency,” Keishna recalls. As a result, she often tucks a handful of kids that aren’t hers into bed every night.
After five or so years in the daycare, some of the kids started calling Eugene “Daddy Gene.” It’s “a respect thing,” says Eugene. He’s been phoned by the parents and teachers of a child who used to come to the Kiddie Corner and was having behavioral problems in the classroom—they turned to Eugene to sort it out. And there is a certain three-year-old who isn’t in need of Eugene’s discipline so much as someone larger with whom to tussle. “I can’t walk in here without him trying to fight me,” laughs Eugene. “It’s symbolic of what he’s missing, because [at home] he can’t roughhouse with his sister or mother. It’s sad and disheartening that after he leaves here, he’ll still want to do that and can’t.”
The Hamiltons say that once a couple of the girls they cared for were given a dollhouse at home, and used it to recreate the daycare, naming the dolls after Keishna, Eugene, the staff and other kids. These bonds, they say, also reflect the lack of quality time many pressured parents get with their children. “Some kids are here all the waking hours, and just get taken away to brush their teeth and go to sleep,” says Keishna.
To the bonding the kids have enjoyed with Keishna and Eugene, parents’ reaction has been “90 percent positive,” they say. “No one’s left [the program] because of it!” Keishna says, chuckling. “Some parents have been shocked at the kids kicking and screaming when they’ve been picked up, because they don’t want to leave.” She adds that some parents have broken down in tears when they’ve seen the double parenting their kids receive here, and realize they can’t provide that in their home.
Keishna in fact feels like a mother to many of the young mothers who bring their toddlers to her, saying she does “a lot of therapy here,” on the subjects of parenthood and forming new relationships. In the front room of their home are family photos of Eugene, Keishna, and their five children. Many of the young parents know their history and are comforted by their example of having kids with one partner and then going on to find a new, settled relationship. “People take heart from us. And we give them advice: Don’t expect perfection in a relationship, just keep working at it,” says Keishna.
Eugene perennially ponders going into teaching, but at the moment is happy with the daycare and coaching high school football teams around the Bay Area, working with kids from across the socioeconomic spectrum. “To me, kids are wiser than adults,” he says. “They don’t intentionally lie.” Keishna finishes his thought, adding, “Adults like to put people in boxes, but when kids see someone who takes care of them, they just call him ‘Dad.’”
Story text by Tom Goulding, video by Hannah Lawson.
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